FILE - NY Manhattan apartments 3-13-2016

Apartment buildings are seen March 13, 2016, in the SoHo neighborhood of New York's Manhattan borough.

(The Center Square) – According to the chairman of the New York State Senate Housing, Construction and Community Development Committee, an often-criticized state-run COVID-19 relief program for renters is in the midst of a turnaround.

So much so, state Sen. Brian Kavanagh, D-Manhattan, said the state may end up getting more federal funding for the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP).

Kavanagh spoke to The Center Square a few days after the Legislature met for a brief special session to extend its eviction moratorium until January.

The state has received $2.7 billion from the federal government for ERAP, with the first $1.3 billion coming from the $900 billion COVID-relief Congress passed in December. The package required states to obligate at least 65% of those funds by Sept. 30 or have their funding reallocated to states demonstrating a higher need for assistance.

Just weeks ago, Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli noted in a report that the state was at the risk of losing some of the funding as only $108.8 million had been awarded as of Aug. 12. However, through the end of August, New York has obligated $1.2 billion in ERAP funding, with $300 million disbursed.

“The federal government made the reasonable supposition that if you’re not spending the money, perhaps it’s because you haven’t identified applicants who need it, and there may be some other state that needs it more,” Kavanagh said. “It’s clear that New York is a very high need state in this regard.”

The need exists because New York has a higher share of renters than any other state. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that 46% of state residents rent, with that rate jumping to 64.6% in New York City.

State lawmakers took additional steps to help with allocations by expanding the program to include communities that previously offered their own rent-relief program and didn’t take part in the statewide program. That was part of the measure the Legislature passed Wednesday during a special session called by Gov. Kathy Hochul primarily to address rental relief matters.

Primarily, the bill lawmakers passed extended the moratorium on evicting people and businesses, which had expired on Tuesday, to Jan. 15. It also revised the state’s COVID-related eviction initiatives to allow property owners to challenge a tenant’s claim they have a hardship due to the coronavirus.

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of the state’s law in a 6-3 decision, with the majority saying renters’ ability to self-certify their hardship did not give property owners sufficient due process to challenge those claims.

That, though, will be challenged again. On Thursday, after Hochul signed the bill into law, the Rent Stabilization Association (RSA) said it would file a motion after Labor Day with the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals to block enforcement of the eviction ban.

That group, along with five property owners, filed the initial suit that led to the Supreme Court’s decision.

“No matter how Albany tries to spin the new law, it still doesn’t require tenants to show proof of COVID hardship – which means a significant universe of tenants will continue gaming the system and not pay rent, despite never losing their jobs or income,” said Joseph Strasburg, president of the RSA, in a statement.

Kavanagh said he’s confident the new law addresses the justices’ concerns.

“It is clear now under New York law in all, in all of these different moratoria, that the hardship form can be signed, but also it can be immediately challenged by a party who thinks that it is not valid,” he said.

While the focus on the relief programs has been on renters, Kavanagh noted the eviction ban also applies to homeowners as well. That’s not the only protection that will be available to distressed homeowners, he said.

Similar to ERAP, the state also has a similar relief program ready to launch for homeowners, with $600 million in federal funds that will be made available. It’s awaiting final approval from the U.S. Treasury Department, but the senator said the program is expected to roll out around Sept. 15.

The new moratorium deadline will likely coincide with the first few days of the 2022 legislative session. Over the next four months, before he and his colleagues start next year’s session, Kavanagh’s said he hopes to see vaccination rates climbing and infection rates dropping. That would likely indicate COVID-19 is on the decline.

But, he said what’s happened over the past 18 months shows there’s no way to guarantee what happens down the road.

“I think if there’s anything we’ve learned about COVID-19, it’s been that it’s unpredictable, and we have, in many different areas, taken steps that are temporary to prevent the spread of the disease,” he said. “And we modify those as we go.”

Even if the virus is declining when lawmakers return to Albany, that may not mean the end of relief programs. Kavanagh said he will be watching ERAP to see how the application process is going.

The top priority, in terms of rental relief, will be to see that the ERAP has enough money to cover the identified need.

“And if there are more applicants with greater arrears than the money we have available, we should be pushing for more federal money,” the senator said. “And if necessary, we should be providing state money to cover those costs.”

However, COVID-19 did not start the housing crisis in New York or New York City, and it won’t end with the pandemic, either.

Kavanagh noted that before the pandemic hit, he had been working on a voucher program to get homeless people, or those facing an immediate risk of becoming homeless, into permanent housing. That initiative ended up passing in the 2021 state budget, but the $100 million allotment was half of what he and other supporters sought.

He’s optimistic that the program could receive greater support from the new governor, saying that Hochul’s comments about making public housing a priority in her administration were “a very welcome commitment” in his eyes.

It also helps that state Sen. Brian Benjamin, D-Manhattan, Hochul’s pick to be her lieutenant governor, co-sponsored Kavanagh’s bill, too.

What may also help is a five-year capital plan for affordable housing in the state. Kavanagh sponsored that bill, which requires a spending plan for New York State Homes and Community Renewal. It passed in both chambers unanimously, but former Gov. Andrew Cuomo never signed the bill into law.

“This governor now has an opportunity immediately with her very first budget to put her stamp on the state’s efforts to provide housing throughout the state through the capital plan,” he said. “So that is something that we will be having conversations, probably some hearings in the fall, about that.”